Paul Romer Misreads the Great Barrington Declaration

by Don Boudreaux on October 15, 2020

in Current Affairs, Truth-seeking & ideology

David Henderson, over at EconLog, did a short blog post on a tweet by Nobel-laureate economist Paul Romer – a tweet that is critical of the Great Barrington Declaration. Here’s the tweet:

And here’s David’s excellent response.

And here’s a modified version of a comment that I left on David’s post:

Another criticism of Paul Romer’s statement warrants mention: He misinterprets the Great Barrington Declaration. It is not a libertarian call for the government to play no, or a suboptimal, role in protecting public health. And it is certainly not a “plan for surrendering to the virus.” It is, instead, a statement about what are the best means of protecting public health.

It’s true that the sponsor of the Declaration, AIER, is a pro-liberty organization. It’s true also that the authors of the Declaration argue in this case in favor of fewer government-imposed restrictions. But the authors argue as they do so because they believe that what they call “Focused Protection” (as opposed to the centralized, unfocused manner in which lockdowns have been imposed) is, far from a ‘surrender to the virus,’ a superior means of protecting public health.

Of course, the Declaration’s authors might be mistaken. But mistaken or not, theirs is not a manifesto for “surrendering to the virus.”

Yet Romer reads the Declaration as an ideologically driven effort to minimize the role of government even though doing so is, in his view, to ‘surrender’ to the virus. The fact that he reads the Declaration in this manner suggests not only that he believes that the medical sciences (and the economics) are all settled on the Truth that lockdowns are the best means of protecting public health, but also that the authors and signatories of the Declaration accept this Truth but are driven by anti-government ideology to ignore it. The authors and signatories, as Romer interprets them, are so intent on pursuing an anti-government ideology that they’re willing to ‘surrender to the virus.’

This reading is so utterly unjustified that it causes me to wonder if Romer has actually read the Declaration.

While improved public health is the main focus of the Great Barrington Declaration, its authors recognize also, if only implicitly, that this desirable goal must be traded-off against other desirable goals. This fact about the Declaration only makes it stronger. It is more than odd that an economist writes, as Romer above does, as if protecting public health is not to be traded-off against any other desirable goal. As commenter AMT insightfully says above, ““Whatever it takes” sure doesn’t sound likely to pass a cost/benefit analysis….”


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